Shouldn’t the first thing about Prince William County’s search for a new top law enforcement officer be that it conforms with the law? Sadly, that is apparently not even a consideration for 7 of the 8 sitting supervisors with Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland being the lone exception.
PWC blogger Al Alborn made what he thought was a simple request of his supervisor, Marty Nohe, asking him who the Board had appointed to the citizens panel that was formed to help with the search for a new police chief. Before he knew it, his friendly email to his longtime supervisor was being treated like a formal Freedom of Information Act request and the county attorney’s office had become involved. Needless to say, Mr. Alborn was given the runaround. He, however, was persistent and was not about to take “no” for an answer. Alborn contested the county’s interpretation of the law which they relied upon for the denial.
Typically, appointments to boards and commissions take place during the open portion of a BOCS meeting and the members of such bodies are publicly disclosed – not only at the time of appointment and included in the meeting minutes, but also listed on the county website (as when I served as the At-Large Representative on Prince William County’s Housing Board and was listed on its webpage.)
Of course there are instances allowed by Virginia law that permit bodies to go into executive (a.k.a. closed) session, but there is no provision in Virginia law to keep secret the members of a public body. Let’s take a quick look at some basic provisions of the Virginia Open Meetings Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed or “executive” session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under Virginia FOIA, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of forty-four subject-area exemptions found in Va. Code § 2.2-3711. If a governing body is dealing with one of these enumerated subject areas, then it may hold a closed session, but it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- The public body must affirmatively vote during an open meeting on a motion that
- identifies the subject matter of the closed meeting;
- states the purpose of the closed meeting; and
- makes explicit reference to the statutory exemption relied on to close the meeting.
- At the end of the closed meeting, the public body must reconvene in an open meeting and take a vote certifying that that they discussed only exempt subject matters identified in the previous motion.
- Decisions made in a closed meeting do not become official until the public body reconvenes in an open meeting following the proper procedure, reasonably identifies the substance of the decision, and takes a recorded vote on the decision agreed to in the closed meeting. Va Code § 2.2-3711(B). Any and all votes taken to authorize the transaction of any public business must be taken and recorded in an open meeting. Va. Code § 2.2-3710(A).
Public bodies are not required to record minutes for closed meetings.
For more information on the exemptions to the Virginia open-meetings requirements, see the Access to Public Meetings Guide and the Open Government Guide: Virginia.
In other words, while this body can hold closed meetings, it must still have at least a public opening and closing. In order to do that, however, the public would have to know who was on the panel as well as when and where they were meeting. (The PWC Board has shown no regard for Virginia’s Open Meetings Law, so why should we expect them to start now with a creation of their own?)
According to Potomac Local:
[Prince William County Chairman Corey] Stewart was not in favor of releasing the names of anyone on the interview panel keeping with concern aired by county officials that if the names get out, those on the panel, and their decision, may be unduly influenced by friends and neighbors.
Is that a legitimate concern? I’ll let you decide that for yourselves. (I have my own opinion that I will share at some point.) It is not, however, a legal justification. Similar non sequitur responses have been given by other supervisors including John Jenkins and Frank Principi.
All of this raises the simple question — why? Speculation has abounded by commenters on the Sheriff of Nottingham in PWC’s blog with people claiming that this panel is being kept secret because one or more of the appointees may be controversial. The Derecho also has a nice summary of the proceedings to date.
All I know is that for the past six months or so, nearly every time the PWC Board could make a wrong decision, they either did so or were dragged kicking and screaming into making the right one. (Is someone feeding these people lead paint chips for snacks during meetings or something?)
This decision is too important to the future of the county for it to be made in such a secretive manner. I have long expressed my frustration with former Chief Deane (as well as with former County Exec. Craig Gerhart) and advocated for wide-open national searches to be conducted in order to find top-notch people who can guide Virginia’s second largest county and one of America’s top ten wealthiest ones. We did not get that with the selection of Melissa Peacor as County Executive who was promoted from within and merely compounded the problems wrought by her predecessor. We certainly cannot afford for the same thing to happen in this instance.